Desensitizing a Dog or Providing a Release From Tension & Stress?
Helping Otis Let Off Steam
The first real severe case of separation anxiety I had was in 1994. It involved a nine-month old vizsla named Otis. His owner worked a nine-to-five job in the financial sector. She took Otis to the dog run twice a day for at least an hour, sometimes two. She also had a dog walking service take him out for two hours while she was at work. However, they were “pack walkers,” so Otis spent most of his time going from one apartment building to the next, or just standing around on the sidewalk while one walker held onto the leashes and the other went inside to pick up a new dog. And while Otis had a few problem behaviors—he could be a bit whiney and was scared to walk past laundry room vents—he was, for the most part, a very sweet, loveable dog.
Then his owner got a new job, a lucrative high-powered position. She took two weeks off to spend every possible moment with Otis, which might have seemed like a good idea, but when she started working 12-hour days Otis went from being with her every day, for most of the day, to being locked in his crate starting at 6. A.M., then let out for two hours at noon for his pack walk, then back in his crate from 2 – 6 P.M. And when his owner got home, she was too tired to take him to the dog run to let off steam.
Otis went off the rails. He started crying, whining, yelping and barking the moment his owner left every morning. This went on for several days, with no end in sight. The neighbors were furious. The building management was complaining. So finally, his owner called me, in tears, and I came over to see what was going on and if I could help.
The moment I came inside Otis started whining, then he tried humping my leg, then he started chewing on my shoelaces, and occasionally just standing in front of me barking his head off. “You don’t belong here! Go away! Not your mommy! My mommy! My mommy!”
It was annoying yet kind of endearing in a way.
His owner tried to stop his behavior by yelling “No! Bad dog!” etc.
I suggested that she try not do that.
“Well, what am I supposed to do? He has to learn not to go crazy like this!”
“Yes, he does. But yelling at him won’t help.”
She began to cry. “What am I supposed to do? I don’t know what to do!”
“I’m sorry. I know this is hard. Look, try giving him something to chew on instead.”
She gave Otis a chew toy. And while he was ripping it to pieces I went over a possible scenario to help her manage Otis’ manic energy and cure his separation anxiety. I suggested that she ditch Otis’ pack walkers, that instead, I would come over as early in the morning as possible and take him to Central Park to play outdoors every day with my Dalmatian Freddie.
“How will that help?”
“It’ll burn off some of his energy. Plus, I’ll work on his separation anxiety and train him to hold a down/stay for twenty minutes. Once he’s developed that ability he should be fine.”
“I think so. It’ll take a few weeks, maybe more. But he’ll be okay.”
Freddie and I came over the next morning. We heard poor Otis screaming and crying while we were riding up on the elevator. We came inside, went to the bedroom where Otis was, locked in his crate. I showed Otis a piece of cheese to quiet him down, then gave it to him and let him out of the crate. He was still vibrating out of control, but he was quiet, or I should say, he wasn’t as loud, no screaming just a lot of whining.
He and Freddie sniffed each other, did some of the usual play moves, and seemed very happy to be together. Then I leashed them up and we went to the park and played for three hours. I did the same thing the next day.
On the third day I left Freddie at home. Once again I could hear Otis screaming and whining as I came up in the elevator. But when I came into the bedroom, instead of letting Otis out of his crate right away, I lay down on the carpet next to the crate, in arm’s reach of the door. I just lay there, not saying anything, not doing anything.
Otis went through all possible routines to convince me to let him out of the crate.
I just ignored him and waited.
He barked furiously, spun around, scratched at the door and barked some more.
He pawed at the door, grabbed the bars with his teeth, screamed and cried, and barked and shrieked and barked.
I just waited.
Finally, after about thirty minutes of whining, screaming, barking and pawing at the door, his breathing started to slow down. He circled around in the crate a few times. Got back up and started whining again. Then he settled back down and just panted and panted and panted for about five minutes. Finally, he put his head down on the floor of the crate and I heard the sound I had been waiting for, and was hoping to hear: a heavy sigh, releasing all of his tension, leaving him totally relaxed and exhausted.
I opened the crate door.
He jumped up excitedly, without any vocalizations of any kind, and I put on his leash. We went to the park and played for several hours. Then I brought him home.
Matching a Dog’s Emotional Intensity
Since the initial experience Otis had of being left in the crate for half-an-hour, while I lay near by, created so much anger, fury, frustration, and rage in him, one might suppose that he would have formed a deeply negative “association” with the crate. Not at all. The next day, when I was coming upstairs in the elevator there was no sound coming from upstairs. It was totally quiet. I came inside to find Otis lying comfortably on his bed inside the crate, calm as could be. That’s because what Otis took away from that experience was the feeling of deep pleasure and relaxation he had just before I opened the crate door, the feeling of having all that anger and fear and fury and frustration melt away.
During the next two weeks Otis would still occasionally emit strangled cries and whimpers from the crate. I thought of them as faint reverberations—minor echoes, if you will—of his previous cries and moans. So while that first time was a big change, a huge departure from his previous behavior, these echoes indicated to me that he was still having trouble feeling the natural state of physical movement and emotional flow that dogs love so much.
Even though we’d made some amazing progress, Otis wasn’t ready to be allowed outside the crate when left home alone. That would take a little longer. And even though it only took three days to stop Otis from vocalizing in the crate, it took about three months of playing in the park and working on some specific obedience behaviors—holding a long down/stay being the most important—to free Otis of his anxieties.
Also, since Otis had very strong, very intense feelings of abandonment and the loss of physical and emotional balance when left alone, when I played with him or taught him to heel, and sit, and stay, and come when called, I made sure that the emotional intensity of those activities rose to that same level he’d been in when he was in an all-out panic state. This is the exact opposite to what most “positive” trainers would probably do or prescribe. Yet in my book it's one of the most important aspects of dog training.
A Pleasurable Feeling of Release
The most common protocol “positive” trainers have for dealing with separation anxiety is a process called “desensitization,” where the owner or trainer leaves the dog alone in small increments: you put on your coat, grab your purse, open the door, lock it from the outside, wait 5 or 10 seconds, then come back inside, put down your things, have a seat, read the paper (or whatever) and wait until the dog has calmed down. Then, when he’s calm enough, you start the whole process over again, increasing the time he’s alone in small increments with each mock departure. This is very boring and time consuming for the owner or trainer. It’s also very difficult on the dog. In fact, it actually runs counter to the precepts of learning theory: every time the dog exhibits calm behavior, instead of rewarding him you leave him alone again, so you’re essentially punishing the dog for doing the very thing you actually want him to do. And since separation anxiety is a panic disorder this is torture for the dog.
So my approach was quite different from the textbook process.
Why is it different?
Dogs with separation anxiety aren’t longing to be “desensitized.” Nor are they happy about having their needs and feelings and desires ignored, over and over and over. What they want more than for their owner to not leave them alone, what they’re really looking for is a feeling of release from the neediness, anxiety and panic they feel inside their bodies when they’re unable to make contact with objects of attraction, i.e., their owners. This is why I think “positive” trainers need to start questioning the purely abstract concepts of punishment and reward, and start thinking in terms of the physical and emotional properties of tension and release because that’s how dogs really see and feel the world they live in. Dogs don’t deal in abstractions.
What Otis wanted, and what all dogs with separation anxiety want, is to get rid of the horrible, panicky feeling they get when they’re left alone. So their vocalizations—their barks, whines and cries—aren’t as much a form of communication (“Don’t leave me!”) as they are an attempt to find some kind of release from the intense feelings of loneliness and abandonment that interfere with their normal functioning. Again, this is why dog trainers need to focus on finding ways to facilitate deep feelings of emotional release in dogs with separation anxiety, which is why playing tug-of-war is so important.
Trainers also need to start using the 5 Core Exercises of Natural Dog Training. These exercises hadn’t been developed when I worked with Otis. If I’d had access to them, things might have gone much quicker and easier for me and for him.
I also realize this isn’t among the most difficult cases of separation anxiety some owners and trainers have had to deal with, cases where dogs have torn their skin or broken their toenails trying to escape from their crates, dogs who’ve literally thrown themselves out open windows, or against doors until they were bruised and bloody. Yes, Otis was a much simpler problem to do deal with. But the basic process is still the same. Teach the dog certain key obedience skills with the same level of emotional intensity that the dog exhibits when trying to escape from his crate or his home. And remember, this problem is, above all else, about how the dog feels, inside his own skin and bones, when he’s left alone. If you can change the dog’s feeling states, you will always, always be able to effect a meaningful change over his behavior.
By the way, about a year or so after I first met Otis his owner got a job in Amsterdam. So she and Otis flew across the Atlantic and lived in a very foreign (for both of them) place. Otis didn’t miss a beat. They had parks and squirrels in Amsterdam just like they do in New York. Then about a year later, the two came back to New York for a few months before moving to Northern California, where his owner got married. Again, Otis coped quite well with the stress of moving and stayed on an even keel for the rest of his long and happy life.
“Life Is and Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
1.) “Performing graduated departures and counterconditioning, or scrambling pre-departure cues, appears to be effective, but the precise value of these procedures for the control of [separation distress] is not known. In principle, lengthy exposures to separation should adversely impact the positive gains achieved by desensitisation efforts.” (Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Procedures and Protocols, Steven R. Lindsay, 2013.)
2.) “One of the best ways to restore appropriate limits and balance to the human-dog relationship is basic training. Not surprisingly, obedience training has been correlated with a reduced incidence off separation-related complaints.” (Goodloe and Borchelt, 1998; Jagoe and Serpell, 1996; Flannigan and Dodman, 2001).